It’s Official: Monticello Affirms Thomas Jefferson Fathered Children with Sally Hemings

2c666-monticelloflickr

It was announced on June 6, 2018.  Here is the press release:

The issue of Jefferson’s paternity has been the subject of controversy for at least two centuries, ranging from contemporary newspaper articles in 1802 (when Jefferson was President) to scholarly debate well into the 1990s. It is now the Thomas Jefferson Foundation’s view that the issue is a settled historical matter.

A considerable body of evidence stretching from 1802 to 1873 (and beyond) describes Thomas Jefferson as the father of Sally Hemings’s children. It was corroborated by the findings of the Y-chromosome haplotype DNA study conducted by Dr. Eugene Foster and published in the scientific journal Nature in November 1998. The DNA study did prove paternity of a Jefferson family member and corroborated the ample documentary and oral history evidence. Other evidence supports Thomas Jefferson’s paternity as well, including his presence at Monticello during Sally Hemings’s likely windows of conception, the names of Hemings’s surviving children, and the fact that all of her children were granted freedom – they were either allowed to leave the plantation, or legally emancipated in Jefferson’s will, a unique occurrence among Monticello’s enslaved families. The summary of the most important evidence proving Jefferson’s paternity is listed below.1

  1. Madison Hemings provided an account of his mother’s life that was published in an Ohio newspaper in 1873. The basic outline of Madison Hemings’s account, including his mother’s “treaty” with Jefferson and the freedom granted to him and his siblings, was well known to his community before it was published. His narrative is the most important extant evidence and much of the corroborating evidence supports the outline of his narrative.
  2. The Foster et al. (1998) DNA study revealed that male-line descendants of Eston Hemings (a son of Sally Hemings) and male-line descendants of Field Jefferson’s father (who was Thomas Jefferson’s grandfather), shared the same Y-chromosome haplotype.  This demonstrates that Eston’s father was a Jefferson male. This result not only corroborates Madison’s account in the Pike County Republican, it definitively refutes the claims by Jefferson grandchildren, including Ellen Randolph Coolidge and her brother Thomas Jefferson Randolph, that either Peter or Samuel Carr (they could not agree on which one) was the father of Sally Hemings’s children.
  3. Madison Hemings was described by a U.S. census taker as the son of Thomas Jefferson in 1870.
  4. Israel Gillette Jefferson, formerly enslaved at Monticello, corroborated Madison Hemings’s claim in the same newspaper, referring to Sally Hemings as Thomas Jefferson’s “concubine.”
  5. Eston Hemings changed his racial identity to white and his surname to Jefferson after moving from Ohio to Wisconsin in 1852.  Newspaper accounts in Chillicothe, Ohio, in 1887 and 1902 recalled that Eston resembled Thomas Jefferson.
  6. The two oldest surviving children of Sally Hemings, Beverly Hemings (a male) and Harriet Hemings, were both allowed to leave Monticello without pursuit and were described as “run away” in Jefferson’s inventory of enslaved families. In an 1858 letter to her husband Joseph Coolidge, Jefferson’s granddaughter, Ellen Wayles Randolph Coolidge, (while denying Jefferson’s paternity) described Sally Hemings’s children as “all fair and all set free at my grandfather’s death, or had been suffered to absent themselves permanently before he died.”
  7. Jefferson’s records of his travels and the birthdays of Sally Hemings’s children reveal that he was present at Monticello during the estimated dates of conception for all six of Hemings’s documented offspring. Statistical modeling shows the likelihood of this coincidence for any other male (if we assume that Thomas Jefferson is not the father) as 1 percent, or 1 chance in 100 — strong evidence of Thomas Jefferson’s paternity.2
  8. Oral tradition connecting the Hemings and Jefferson families was transmitted among the descendants of both Madison Hemings and Eston Hemings over many generations. Madison Hemings calls Jefferson his “father” in his 1873 recollections, a fact repeated by his descendants.  Eston Hemings’s descendants altered their family history to state that they were related to one of Thomas Jefferson’s relatives in order to hide Eston Hemings’s decision to change his racial identity when he moved to Wisconsin.
  9. Jefferson freed all four surviving Hemings children (in accordance with the terms of his negotiation with Sally Hemings, as reported by her son Madison). He did not grant freedom to any other enslaved nuclear family.
  10. The names of Sally Hemings’s four surviving children — William Beverly Hemings, Harriet Hemings, James Madison Hemings, and Thomas Eston Hemings — suggest family ties to Thomas Jefferson. Annette Gordon-Reed outlines these naming connections in her book, Thomas Jefferson & Sally Hemings: An American Controversy (1997).  A man named William Beverly accompanied Jefferson’s father on an expedition through Virginia in 1746, and he was connected to Jefferson’s mother’s family by blood and marriage. There were multiple Harriets in the Randolph family, including a sister and a niece of Thomas Mann Randolph, Jefferson’s son-in-law. Madison Hemings was named at the request of Dolley Madison, whose husband, James Madison, was one of Jefferson’s close friends. Historian and biographer Fawn Brodie offered two possible explanations for Eston Hemings’s name: Eston was the birthplace of Jefferson’s maternal ancestor, William Randolph, in Yorkshire, England. Thomas Eston Randolph was also a first cousin of Jefferson; Jefferson described their two families as being “almost as one.”3Furthermore, it was convention for Jefferson to be involved in the naming of family members. His children with Martha Jefferson were given the names of his sisters and mother, and he personally named each of his grandchildren.4

Why Remove the Qualifiers?

As the Thomas Jefferson Foundation began planning The Life of Sally Hemings, an exhibit that relies on the account left by her son, Madison Hemings, it became apparent that it was time to reexamine how to characterize Jefferson’s paternity. For nearly twenty years, the most complete summary of evidence has remained the report authored by the Foundation in January 2000. While there are some who disagree, the Foundation’s scholarly advisors and the larger community of academic historians who specialize in early American history have concurred for many years that the evidence is sufficiently strong to state that Thomas Jefferson fathered at least six children with Sally Hemings.

In the new exhibit exploring the life of Sally Hemings, her choices, and her connection to Thomas Jefferson, as well as in updates to our related online materials and print publications, the Foundation will henceforth assert what the evidence indicates and eliminate qualifying language related to the paternity of Eston Hemings as well as that related to Sally Hemings’s three other surviving children, whose descendants were not part of the 1998 DNA study. While it remains possible, though increasingly unlikely, that a more comprehensive documentary and genetic assemblage of evidence could emerge to support a different conclusion, no plausible alternative with the same array of evidence has surfaced in two decades.

  • 1.All the evidence enumerated comes from the unpublished Report on Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, TJMF, January 2000, section IV, pp. 6-8, and Appendix F, “A Review of the Documentary Evidence,” pp. 1-7. The entire report and other resources are available online at https://www.monticello.org/site/plantation-and-slavery/jefferson-hemings….
  • 2.Bayes’ theorem allows us to measure just how strong. To take advantage of it, we need to be willing to summarize the strength of evidence that Jefferson was the father, based on other evidence (say the DNA result and Madison’s testimony), as a “prior” probability. Bayes’ theorem allows us to rationally update this prior probability, using the 1 percent likelihood, to yield a posterior probability that Jefferson was the father of all six children. Given a prior probability of 50%, Bayes’ theorem yields a posterior probability of 99%: 99 chances out of 100 that Jefferson was the father of all six children.
  • 3.Fawn M. Brodie, Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History (New York: Norton, 1974).
  • 4.Annette Gordon-Reed, Thomas Jefferson & Sally Hemings: An American Controversy (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1999) pp. 196-201.

Annette Gordon Reed: Why Jefferson Matters in the Wake of Charlottesville

The Rotunda with a statue of Thomas Jefferson at the University of Virginia.I have been trying to say something like this throughout the week, but I can’t say it as well or with the expertise and authority of  Annette Gordon-Reed:

Today, a time of intense focus on the personal and of misplaced faith in the importance of sincerity, we question whether Jefferson really believed the words “all men are created equal,” as if ideas are only as important and powerful as the personal will of the individual who utters them. The Confederates knew better than that. Ideas can have a power and life of their own. They weren’t taking any chances. They saw Jefferson as a public man who had put ideas into popular discourse that could be used in opposition to the society they hoped to build. The Confederates took him at his word, thinking it important to mention him by name and repudiate what they took to be his views. Alexander Stephens’s famous “Cornerstone Speech” said that Jefferson was wrong, insisting that blacks were not the equals of whites and, therefore, slavery was A-OK.  

I cannot help thinking that the menaced people standing around the statue, no doubt holding many different views about Jefferson the man, symbolize the fragility of the idea of progress and aspirations for the improvement of humankind: the ideals that animated Jefferson in the Declaration, his insistence on the separation of church and state, his belief in public education, religious tolerance, and science. It must be said, they also animated what Jefferson knew by the end of his life to be the pipe dream of solving the slavery question, and wiping away the transgression of slavery, by giving blacks their own country—whether they wanted one or not. When he wrote his will freeing five enslaved men, he requested that they be allowed to remain in Virginia “where their families and connexions” were (an 1806 law would otherwise have required them to leave the state within a year). That is, of course, why all blacks in America should have had the right to stay in the country. He did this while other slave owners were freeing enslaved people on the condition fdaa8-gordonreedthat they be sent to Liberia. The simple fact is that as brilliant as he may have been, Jefferson had no real answer to the slavery question. Although  historians do not like the concept of inevitability, legalized slavery was destroyed in the most likely way it could have been destroyed.

American ideals have always clashed with harsh American realities. We saw that clash on the grounds of UVA. But how do we continue in the face of depressing realities to allow ourselves to hold fast to the importance of having aspirations, and recognize that the pursuit of high ideals—even if carried out imperfectly—offers the only real chance of bringing forth good  in the world? In many ways, grappling with that question is what being a scholar of Jefferson is all about. Perhaps coming fully to grips with the paradoxes that Jefferson’s life presents is what being an American is about. Even if one rejects that formulation, there is no doubt that he remains one of the best ways we have of exploring and understanding the strengths and weaknesses of the American experiment displayed so vividly last week in Charlottesville.

Read the entire piece at the New York Review of Books

 

FOUND: The Slave Quarters of Sally Hemings

Manacles

Slave manacles from Monticello (Creative Commons)

She was mother to six of Thomas Jefferson’s children.  She was also Thomas Jefferson’s slave.  Archaeologists at Monticello have discovered the living quarters of Sally Hemings.

Here is a taste of a report from NBC News:

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — Archaeologists have excavated an area of Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello mansion that has astounded even the most experienced social scientists: The living quarters of Sally Hemings, the enslaved woman who, historians believe, gave birth to six of Jefferson’s children.

“This discovery gives us a sense of how enslaved people were living. Some of Sally’s children may have been born in this room,” said Gardiner Hallock, director of restoration for Jefferson’s mountaintop plantation, standing on a red-dirt floor inside a dusty rubble-stone room built in 1809. “It’s important because it shows Sally as a human being — a mother, daughter, and sister — and brings out the relationships in her life.”

Hemings’ living quarters was adjacent to Jefferson’s bedroom but she remains something of an enigma: there are only four known descriptions of her. Enslaved blacksmith Isaac Granger Jefferson recalled that Hemings was “mighty near white . . . very handsome, long straight hair down her back.”

Her room — 14 feet, 8 inches wide and 13 feet long — went unnoticed for decades. The space was converted into a men’s bathroom in 1941, considered by some as the final insult to Hemings’ legacy.

Read the entire news report here.

I am sure Annette Gordon-Reed‘s phone has been ringing today.

Are the Founding Fathers Back In Vogue?

Earlier today we posted a video of a session on race and monuments from the Aspen Ideas Festival.

Here is another video from the Festival that will be of interest to readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  The session is titled “Are the Founders Back in Vogue.”

The panelists include Yoni Appelbaum, Annette Gordon-Reed, Jack Rakove, Noah Feldman, and Jon Meacham.  Not a bad lineup.  I should also note that two of these five esteemed panelists have been guests on The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast.

There is some great stuff here on historical thinking, the uses of the past in the present, and the role of history in constructing a national community.

Watch it here:

 

Annette Gordon-Reed on Why Monuments to Thomas Jefferson are Not in Jeopardy

Earlier this Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and Jefferson scholar Annette Gordon-Reed was part of a panel at the Aspen Ideas Festival on race, monuments, and the Civil War. She was joined by  poet Elizabeth Alexander and New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu.

Watch it here:

 

Over at The Atlantic, David Graham reports on the session.  Here is a taste:

Some hesitation about removing monuments is grounded in a sense among Southerners of still being condescended to, Landrieu said. “I think some of the pushback is [the sense that] if we admit this and we admit we were wrong, it will feed into the misapprehension that people have” about continued racism in the South. Of course, it is just the opposite—the backlash only brings unwanted attention to the persistence of Confederate monuments—but as the poet Elizabeth Alexander pointed out, the North is hardly immune to racism itself. “As Bree Newsome said,” referring to the activist who, as part of a protest removed the Confederate flag from the South Carolina state house grounds in 2015, “the Confederacy may be a southern issue, but white supremacy is an American issue,” Alexander said.

Nevertheless, the concerns about erasure of history remain perhaps the most potent objection, espoused not only by irredentist rebels but even by those who declare strong disdain for the Confederacy. And Gordon-Reed offered two rejoinders.

The first was that removing a statue hardly constitutes erasing history. “We’re always going to know who Robert E. Lee is,” she said. “The question is where these monuments are. The public sphere should be comfortable for everybody.”

But what about the idea that once the Lees and Stonewall Jacksons and P.G.T. Beauregards are pulled down, the revisionists will inevitably start agitating for pulling down monuments to slave-owning Founding Fathers like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.

But Gordon-Reed, who won the Pulitzer Prize for her book on the relationship between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, said it was not hard to draw a bright line separating Jefferson’s generation of Virginians from the ones who tried to secede.

“We can distinguish between people who wanted to build the United States of America and people who wanted to destroy it,” she said. “It’s possible to recognize people’s contributions at the same time as recognizing their flaws.”

“You’re not going to have American history without Jefferson,” Gordon-Reed said. Alluding not to the demise of the Lenin statutes but to the infamous deletion of disgraced figures from Kremlin photographs, she added, “It’s not the Soviet Union.”

Read the entire piece here.

How Does Annette Gordon-Reed Write?

86d77-hemingsesShe is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family and she was a guest on episode of eight of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast.

And have I mentioned that she gave the 2012 American Democracy Lecture at Messiah College?

Over at “Writing Routines,” Annette Gordon-Reed of Harvard University tells us how she writes.

Here is a taste of her interview:

Let’s start with the basics: What time of day do you start writing? Is it easier for you to write early in the morning? Late at night?

I am a morning person, so I prefer to work in the morning. I am at my best writing between 6AM and noon. Things begin to deteriorate after that. The afternoon hours are not so great. I can start back up again around 7PM or so.

What’s your preferred tool for writing—a word processor like Microsoft Word, Google Docs, etc.? A pen and paper?

I start off all serious writing with pen or pencil and paper. I also say out loud what I am writing. I sometimes dictate. It is very difficult for me to start out writing on a computer. Once I have the flow going very well, I transfer what I have written onto the computer. Then I can keep writing and editing.

Do you listen to music when you write, or do you prefer silence, or something else in the background?

I prefer silence because, as I said, I am talking as I’m writing. I only want to hear what I am saying.

Do you have any pre-writing rituals or habits?

I listen to music and I straighten things up around where I’m going to be writing.

How many words a day do you produce, or try to produce? How much of that ever sees the light of day?

Oh, there is no set amount. It depends on where I am in the writing process. I would say most of it sees the light of day. I don’t move onto the next thing until I’m satisfied with the pages I have written. It is very unlikely that I will have written, say, a chapter, and then throw it out and start all over. I do not proceed until I’m satisfied with what I have done.

Read the entire interview here.

Annette Gordon-Reed on Thomas Jefferson: “I now see him with a bit more humility, recognizing how hard it is to do anything, how hard it is to accomplish things”

 

Annette

Gordon-Reed delivered the 2012 Messiah College American Democracy Lecture.  L to R: Jean Corey, Director of Messiah’s Center for Public Humanities; Gordon-Reed; and a random photo bomber

The Harvard Gazette is running a long interview with Pulitzer Prize winning historian Annette Gordon-Reed.  Over the course of the interview she talks about her childhood, her escape from the ashes of the World Trade Center on 9-11, and her approach to writing and teaching.

Here is a small taste:

Q: Returning to your scholarship, you once said in an interview that you had come to know several Thomas Jeffersons. Can you explain what you meant?

A: I suppose I have come to know different Jeffersons as I have become different myself, because you notice different things as you get older. And after working on “Most Blessed Patriarchs: Thomas Jefferson and the Empire of the Imagination,” with my co-author Peter Onuf, I tend to notice vulnerability more than I did before. The book is about him through his entire life, but I would say the perspective is from the older guy looking back over his life, and from that perspective you realize how hard it is to do things.

The Jefferson that I see now is more vulnerable. When I was younger, I saw Jefferson as more powerful than any normal human being. And that tendency to attribute supernatural powers to him helps account for a lot of the anger that people have about him: “Why didn’t you end slavery? Why didn’t you do something about slavery?” And then you think about someone who was a lawyer, a governor, a revolutionary, who wrote the Declaration of Independence, was an ambassador, who was a vice president, who was a president, who founded a university, and then you say, “And why didn’t you end slavery?”

I think about the people who say that, and I think about myself. What is it that I’ve done that approaches all of that? And in asking that question, I now see him with a bit more humility, recognizing how hard it is to do anything, how hard it is to accomplish things. I don’t think the fact that he didn’t accomplish more than he did is a reason to dismiss all the things that he did accomplish. So I think I am a bit more sympathetic, although studying a person’s life can drive you crazy at points. You yourself often wonder why did you do this, or why are you doing that?

The goal for the last book was to try to understand him on his own terms, to accept the problematic aspects of his life and work, but to also have a degree of humility in looking at a historical figure who didn’t have the advantages that we have in understanding the world. I am much more concerned about people today who harbor racial sentiments that are destructive, who have had a chance to learn more than somebody who was born in 1743…

Q: As an African-American woman was it hard to do this research on a personal level?

A: Well it comes and it goes. It came and it went, I should say. For the most part I think people who study slavery are not as sensitive to it as we should be to how other people react. People read this kind of material and are aghast. Historians understand that this was the world that was there. Still, there are always moments when you just are sort of brought up short. I remember reading about when Jefferson sells Mary Hemings, Sally Hemings’ oldest half-sister. Mary had asked to be sold to Thomas Bell, a white man she had been living with while Jefferson was in Paris. They had children together. Jefferson sells her but he doesn’t sell her older two children because they are not considered children at this point — they are 14 and 10. That moment just struck me. It was a weekend and I had been typing away in my New York office and I just started crying because I started thinking of my kids and how when they were 10 how heartbroken they would have been. Now Mary doesn’t move far from them; she is two miles up the road. But kids want to be around their mother, you know. There are moments like that that happen.

But you can’t let your emotions overtake you so much that you can’t do the work. What you are supposed to be doing for them as a historian is telling their story. It’s like visiting someone in a hospital. It can be heartbreaking, but you’ve got to go, because they are expecting to see you. And you have to find the strength in yourself to do that, and then go off and cry or whatever. So it’s very much like that. It would be, I think, self-indulgent if I let my emotions about this get me to a point where I can’t look clearly at the problem, the issue, the situation and be able to take that and to write so that other people can see it. It’s not about me. OK, it is about me to the extent that it’s always about the writer to some degree, but it’s more about the communication, and you have to keep a presence of mind to be able to do that.

Read the entire interview here.

You can also check out our interview with Gordon-Reed and University of Virginia historian Peter Onuf on Episode 8 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast.

Plenary Sessions Announced for the 2017 Conference of the Society for U.S. Intellectual History in Dallas

Kloppenberg-Toward-Democracy-200x300The folks at the Society for U.S. Intellectual History have been putting together some great annual conferences of late.  The 2017 meeting in Dallas is shaping up to be a real intellectual history-fest.

I was recently asked to participate in a panel proposal for this conference, but I decided to decline in order to avoid the embarrassment of this happening again.  For the next several years my travel to conferences in late October and early November is going to be limited.

It was recently announced that Pulitzer Prize-winning Jefferson scholar Annette Gordon-Reed will be one of the plenary speakers.  And just the other day L.D. Burnett announced this:

…we’re pleased to announce our Friday plenary session, “Toward Democracy as Faith or Doubt.”  We have assembled a panel of outstanding scholars who will be interrogating and at times no doubt challenging James Kloppenberg’s argument in his most recent, remarkable book:  Toward Democracy: The Struggle for Self-Rule in European and American Thought (OUP, 2016).

Christopher Cameron of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte will chair the discussion.  Joining him will be W. Caleb McDaniel of Rice University, Amanda Porterfield of Florida State University, Manisha Sinha of the University of Connecticut, and Daniel Wickberg of the University of Texas at Dallas.  James Kloppenberg will also join the conversation, responding to his readers’ comments and questions and perhaps posing some questions of his own.

Obama’s Legacy

36dc4-obamaschoolspeech2460x276

In case you have not seen it, The New Republic is running a fascinating discussion about the legacy of Barack Obama.  The participants in the discussion include historian Annette Gordon-Reed and Nell Painter and journalist/writers John Judis, Sarah Jaffee, and Andrew Sullivan.  The piece also includes insights from Bill McKibbon, Rafia Zakaria, Nikhil Pal Singh, Kim Phillips-Fein, Elizabeth Bruenig, and Thomas Frank.

Here is an interest exchange on identity politics:

SULLIVAN: I want to bring up something about quote-unquote “identity politics.” Because there was an area of extraordinary success Obama had in the advancement of civil rights. Namely, the achievement of marriage equality and openly gay people in the military, which no one believed could happen. And the lesson of that to me was exactly what Sarah said earlier: that yes, we didn’t wait for him, we did it ourselves. But we did it by eschewing identity politics, by saying we have got to stress what we have in common with heterosexual people, by embracing our responsibilities rather than finding constant excuses for failure, by persuading a large number of people in the middle and taking their concerns seriously, instead of screaming “racist” and all this other claptrap we hear from the left.

There is a great lesson in that—which is that if the left thinks that it didn’t stress identity politics enough, they are gravely mistaken. The only progress that will come on these issues is by getting rid of that poison and concentrating on what we have in common as citizens, irrespective of our race and our gender and our sexual orientation.

NEW REPUBLIC: I know other people in the room will disagree with a lot of what you just said, Andrew. But in a way, you captured the core of Obama’s own take on race. He has been very clear and very conscious that his larger goal was essentially a civic one: to try and get people to see themselves in each other. Was that the right approach? Or did it limit what he could achieve, by appealing to our commonality rather than more forcefully confronting the policies and prejudices that divide us?

GORDON-REED: That’s always been the philosophy of people who have been arguing for black rights. That’s what we’ve been doing: We’re people. All men are created equal. We’ve used the Declaration of Independence, we’ve used all those kinds of things. I don’t know who this “left” is that Andrew’s talking about. Black people have always been trying to assert our equal humanity. That’s what we’ve led with. Obama’s approach is not that different than what other people are doing.

JAFFE: Keep in mind that the Tea Party came first. It wasn’t Black Lives Matter. The Tea Party was ready to be angry at Obama on day one, explicitly because he was a black president. It’s just chronologically backwards to say that thousands and thousands of Americans who finally got fed up with racial injustice and took part in protest movements were somehow responsible for polarizing the conversation or rejecting common ground.

PAINTER: We’ve been talking about what Obama might have done or what Obama didn’t do or what Obama should have done. But when we’re talking about a lot of American politics, it goes on at the state and local level. That’s where we need to focus as progressives. Maybe the Democratic Party didn’t do enough on that front. But American citizens have certainly shirked their responsibility to be involved in our public life.

One quick thought about Gordon-Reed’s statement that blacks have always appealed to a common civic life in their efforts at arguing for Civil Rights.  I wonder if this is actually the case.  I can think of several well-respected historians who have argued that African-American public engagement changed considerably in the late 1960s.  If I read scholars like David Chappell, David Burner (who I took a course with in graduate school) or Elizabeth Lasch-Quinn (or even her father Christopher Lasch, especially in The True and Only Heaven) correctly, there was a move away from an appeal to civic culture and towards identity politics and Black nationalism.  I think Sullivan is correct in another part of the interview when he says that Obama represents an older Civil Rights tradition more associated with King in the 1950s and early 1960s.  This approach appealed more to universal, civic ideals than particular identities.  I think we see Obama’s approach on this front very clearly in his speech commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Selma and even in his speech in the wake of the Charleston shootings.

Read the entire conversation here.  In the end, most of the participants, especially the historians, suggest that it is far too early to talk about Obama’s legacy.

Annette Gordon-Reed on “Hamilton”

hamilton

Hamilton the musical that is.

In a recently published piece at Vox, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Gordon-Reed argues that the “intense debates” surrounding the Lin Manuel-Miranda’s Broadway smash “don’t diminish the musical, they enrich it.”

Here is a taste:

Hamilton is attractive on numerous levels — and to different audiences simultaneously. There is no wonder that its depiction of the founding generation would have instant appeal among ardent consumers of what journalist Evan Thomas described back in 2001 as “Founders Chic.” That genre celebrates the derring-do and personal characters of a handful of men (with occasional nods to their consorts) who supposedly “made” the Revolution and the Early American Republic.

On the other hand, for the past several decades academic historians have complicated the founding narrative by expanding the cast of characters involved in it: Native Americans, poor whites, blacks (enslaved and free), and women. With this has come a more intense focus on the problematic aspects of that era — Indian removal, slavery, and the construction of white supremacy.

Yet such is Hamilton’s aesthetic merits that I, and other of my colleagues who have been deeply involved in the project of complicating the narrative, have managed to fall in love with the play, despite its groundings in a triumphant founding narrative. Evidently, many of us enjoy feeling good about America too, though we insist on remembering and discussing the tragedy that was every bit as integral to our country’s beginnings as the positive aspects. It makes perfect sense that these two impulses — to celebrate and to complicate — should be a part of discussions of Hamilton’s cultural message and historical accuracy.

Read the entire piece here.

Was John Adams a Christian?

a8345-adamsIn light of the recent Twitter debate between Annette Gordon-Reed and Sam Haselby on the religion of Thomas Jefferson, I thought I would call your attention to a blog post from my friend Matthew Hunter.

I don’t know if Hunter was aware of the Gordon-Reed/Haselby debate when he wrote this, but his post about John Adams clearly comes down on the Haselby side.  Adams may have thought he was a Christian, but his rejection of the Christian doctrine of the trinity makes it difficult to label him as one.  Adams may have said he was a Christian, but he was not.

So how do we interpret Adams’s religion? Do we take Adams’s word for it?  Or do we interpret Adams’s faith in light of the history of Christian orthodoxy?  As I said several times in the midst of the Gordon-Reed/Haselby debate, the former is a a historical issue and the latter is a theological issue.  This does not mean that these two ways of understanding of the world cannot speak to one another.  In fact, some interdisciplinary thinkers like Hunter might argue that they should be speaking to one another.

In the end, Hunter is correct about at least one thing.  When we  point out that Adams’s beliefs were unorthodox we set the record straight for the Christian nationalists who want to use the second president’s supposed Christian beliefs to promote a political agenda in the present.  John Adams may have been a Christian, but I am guessing that David Barton would not want to have him on the elder board of his church.

Here is a taste of Hunter’s post:

This is a hard post to write, because suggesting any sort of gulf that favors the scholarly view is going to be tainted with a certain elitism that smacks of the sort of gulf represented above, where a semi-divine historical person presides over the terrestrial mess of mortals. There are things that they know that mere mortals cannot know. And you know that scholars are not semi-divine. Nevertheless, a gulf exists. I write this as someone whose academic training was a blend of history, social sciences and theology, so I am not strictly “a historian,” though the American founding does factor into my work.

The gulf I have in mind was brought back to the forefront of my mind when Susan Lim, a reputable Christian historian at Biola recently wrote an article about religion and the Founding Fathers for Christianity Today. Lim wrote,

“Washington’s successor, John Adams, was born into a devout Christian family and raised to carry on Puritan traditions. The second president of the United States never wavered away from his faith, nor did he ever see any conflict in being both an independent thinker and committed Christian. As David McCullough recounts in his Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, Adams regularly boasted of his Puritan ancestry, sometimes bordered on legalism (he often refused to travel on the Sabbath), and occasionally cast stones against those he deemed less spiritual than himself. For example, Adams made it a point to highlight Jefferson’s nontraditional religious convictions when they both vied for the presidency.”

This surprised me, because I believed it was fairly well established that Adams was basically a U/unitarian (did not believe in the Trinity) unlike the Puritans, though he may have remained in Puritan Congregationalist churches. I wrote the following email to Susan (actually, I emailed “Dr. Lim” who graciously told me to call her Susan):

“I have no doubt that Adams was a man of faith and may have valued his Puritan heritage, but it seems to me that we have it pretty decisively in his own words that he was a Unitarian and (perhaps a bit more ambiguously) that he also had serious reservations about the incarnation. I appreciate the fact that there is some disagreement on this, but it mostly seems to come from American Filiopietists with political agendas.  I’m not sure how you say that he was born into a devout Christian family and raised to carry on Puritan traditions. The second president of the United States never wavered away from his faith, nor did he ever see any conflict in being both an independent thinker and committed Christian.” I guess I can sort of spin this in a way, but I think it is liable to mislead many readers.”

Susan responded: “No doubt, the term “Puritan” is a messy one.  I shy away from it in my research.  I used it here because I assume that the majority of the readers aren’t academics, and the term “Congregational” won’t resonate with as many readers.  Puritanism has come to mean so many things to so many people; and as I’m sure you know, many of the social constructs of Puritanism were made in the 19th C (largely through fiction) to comment on Victorian society (by using Puritans as actors).  Or, as Mencken wrote, that Puritanism is thought of as the haunting fear that someone, somewhere may be happy.  Of course we know that this obviously doesn’t do the Puritans justice.  What I meant was that John Adams hailed from a Puritan/Congregational family, and remained committed to his Congregational church.  Yes, that church (along with many other  Congregationalist churches) moved towards Unitarianism by the mid-18th C, but I didn’t want to go into the development of Congregationalism (or Puritanism, if you will) here.”

Note that if this is true, Adams was in the advance guard of a group of Puritan Congregationalists who rejected the the doctrine of the Trinity that had defined Christian Orthodoxy for around 1400 years. At the time, many/most U/unitarians did consider themselves Christians and their services of worship would have resembled Trinitarian Puritans’ services a great deal. Susan Lim is a knowledgeable scholar. She also possesses the virtue of inclusion in her approach to John Adams and Christianity (something many contemporary Christians could learn from). I don’t believe she was trying to fool anyone. However, I still think this way of writing about things plays into the hands of those who have a political agenda and are also much sloppier in their characterizations of the faith of the founders. 

Read the rest here.

Jefferson, Christianity, and Twitter: A Roundup

It all began on a Memorial Day weekend Saturday morning.  I was sipping coffee and flipping channels when I saw two familiar faces:  Annette Gordon-Reed and Peter Onuf. They were on stage at the Free Library of Philadelphia talking about Thomas Jefferson’s religious beliefs.  CSPAN was covering it.

I composed this tweet:

Shortly thereafter Sam Haselby, the author of the excellent The Origins of American Religious Nationalism, jumped into the conversation.  So did Annette Gordon-Reed (yes the CSPAN event was pre-recorded).  So did several others.

After an hour or so, I had to move on to other projects:

Then came the highlight of my day.  A Pulitzer-Prize winning historian told me to “be responsible” as I painted and caulked.

After I left, the conversation about whether or not it was appropriate to call Jefferson a “Christian” continued.  And continued. And continued until it was just Gordon-Reed and Haselby.

Michael Hattem storified the entire thing here.

Since then, there have been several blog posts addressing this fascinating debate.  Here they are:

John Fea, “Peter Onuf Kicks the ‘Christian America’ Hornets Nest.”

John Fea, “Do Historians Privilege Change Over Time Over Continuity?

Roy Rogers, “The Sacred and the Secular in Early National Virginia”

Jonathan Den Hartog, “Jefferson and Christianity”

Ben Park, “Religion and the Founding: Part I of Probably Many”

Nick Satin, “Thomas Jefferson, Peter Onuf, and the ‘Christian Nation'”

Enjoy!

Peter Onuf Kicks the “Christian America” Hornet’s Nest

Most BLessedOn April 21, 2016, Annette Gordon-Reed and Peter Onuf appeared at the Free Library of Philadelphia to talk about their new book , Most Blessed of the Patriarchs: Thomas Jefferson and the Empire of the Imagination.  It is a great book.  One of the best books on Jefferson I have ever read.  (If you want to learn more check out our interview with Gordon-Reed and Onuf at The Way of Improvement Leads Home podcast–Episode 8).

During the conversation in Philadelphia, the authors spend some time talking about Jefferson’s religion.  You can watch the video here. The discussion of religion begins at about the 29:00 minute mark. (C-SPAN does not allow me to embed the video on the blog).

During the discussion, Gordon-Reed and Onuf claim that Thomas Jefferson believed he was a Christian.  You can see how they unpack this on the video, but I want to go on record and say that their claim is correct. (I also noted this in my post this morning on historical thinking).  Jefferson did believe that he was a Christian. As Onuf notes, his view of Christianity was grounded solely in the moral teachings of Jesus.  He did not believe in miracles, the deity of Christ, the resurrection (perhaps the ultimate miracle), the inspiration of the Bible, etc. Jefferson believed he could reject these beliefs and doctrines and still call himself a Christian.

Onuf even suggests (and he realizes he is being controversial and provocative here) that Jefferson wanted to forge a Christian nation.  For many who read this blog, or have read my book Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: Historical Introduction, this claim will set off red flags.  Yet, I think Onuf’s point is a logical extension of his view of Jefferson’s religion.  Jefferson did believe that the American republic would be stronger, more virtuous, if everyone followed the teachings of Jesus. He wanted America to be a Christian nation as he understood the true meaning of Christianity.  As I say in my book, the answer to the “Christian nation” question really depends on how the terms are defined.

I think there is a lesson in historical thinking here.  Gordon-Reed and Onuf do not seem to be claiming that Jefferson was right or wrong about whether he was a Christian or whether America should be a Christian nation, although I must admit that Onuf seems to come very close to doing this when he talks about his own Unitarian faith.

A few more reflections:

  1.  Onuf suggests that Jefferson’s belief in a creator and an intelligent universe was an act of worship and a “leap of faith.”  That’s true.  But one does not have to be a Christian (at least how I define the term) to worship God and believe in an intelligent creator.  By Onuf’s standard, Abraham Lincoln was a Christian as well.  (Although I am guessing Onuf would have no problem calling him one, contra Allen Guelzo’s Gettysburg Prize-winning biography).  But I wonder, can one argue historically that Christian America bookChristians have always believed in certain non-negotiable doctrines and that the rejection of those doctrines means that you are not a Christian?
  2. And this leads to another observation.  It seems Onuf thinks the term “Christian” is important.  What is at stake if Jefferson is not a Christian?  (Or if a Unitarian is not a Christian?)  Why is this important?  (I guess I could ask myself the same question).
  3. For me the most fascinating part of this discussion is that both Gordon-Reed and Peter Onuf seem to believe that the personal religious faith of the historian–Methodism in Gordon-Reed’s case and Unitarian in Onuf’s case–might have some influence or provide some insight into how the historian works.  Now it’s my turn to be provocative: Perhaps we should sign them up to write essays for the second edition of Confessing History.

Again, there are more questions here than definitive answers, but this whole discussion has really peaked my interest.

 

Harvard Law School Removes Crest Linked to Slavery. Annette Gordon Reed Dissents

Harvard Law School has decided to abandon the crest of the Isaac Royal family, a slaveholder who helped endow the school because it does not represent “Harvard values.”

Royall

Harvard Law School has abandoned this crest

Not everyone at Harvard Law School agrees with the decision.  One of them is the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Annette Gordon-Reed.  Here is a taste of an Re:

In her dissent, Ms. Gordon-Reed wrote that erasing the Royalls would also extinguish the memory of the slaves whose labor contributed to the founding of the law school. “People should have to think about slavery when they think of the Harvard shield; but from now on, with a narrative that emphasizes the enslaved, not the Royall family,” Ms. Gordon-Reed wrote. She was joined by one other member of the 12-member committee, Annie Rittgers, a law student.

Ms. Gordon-Reed said sheaves of wheat had also appeared on American pennies and did not have the visceral associations of a Confederate or Nazi flag. Besides, she said, since it was designed in 1936, the shield had taken on its own meaning, separate from the Royall family, honoring the law school graduates. Her opinion acknowledged the complexities that universities confront in dealing with these issues and was a rare departure from the cautious approach of many campuses…

Bruce H. Mann, a Harvard law professor and the chairman of the committee, said Friday that the rest of the committee had agreed that the history of slavery had to be remembered, but disagreed about how to do it.

In an email Friday, Ms. Gordon-Reed said she had been influenced by her scholarship on Hemings. “This is my life’s work,” she said. “I sincerely believe that we owe it to the enslaved to work through those feelings and think of ways to carry their stories forward. And we should do that in a way that shows the inherently entwined nature of the good and bad of our past, using written text and symbols like the sheaves and, even, buildings like Monticello.”

Read the entire article here.

A Tale of Two Jeffersons

Thomas Jefferson will be back in the news in early 2016 thanks to the publication of two new books.

The first book is  The Jefferson Lies: Exposing the Myths You Have Always Believed About Thomas Jefferson.  It is a reprint of David Barton’s discredited 2012 book.

Barton Jefferson

The second book is Most Blessed of the Patriarch: Thomas Jefferson and the Empire of Imagination.  The co-authors are Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Annette Gordon-Reed and Peter Onuf, the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation Professor Emeritus at the University of Virginia.

Most BLessed

This should be interesting.  Stay tuned.

 

Annette Gordon-Reed on "12 Years a Slave"

12 Years a Slavethe fictional adaptation of Solomon Northrup’s 1853 autobiography by the same name, has been getting a lot of attention of late.  Northrup was a free black man who was kidnapped in Washington D.C. in 1841 and sold into slavery.  For twelve years he was enslaved in Louisiana before he was set free.  The film is directed by Steve McQueen.

Over at The New Yorker, Annette Gordon-Reed, the Pulitzer Prize winning historian of Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson, reflects on historians, slave narratives, and the film. Here is a taste:
Another problem hovers over the slave narrative as a literary genre: the role that race and status played in the reception of stories told by members of a disfavored—or despised—racial group. It is one thing for a Solomon Northup to speak about individuals who are, in historical terms, unimportant in order to indict a system that most people recognize as abhorrent. It is another thing when a narrative presents information that many whites might not wish to hear or to accept.
I wrote an entire book about this issue, “Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy,” examining in minute detail one historical controversy as it plays out in family letters and slave narratives. There was, I found, a double standard in the treatment of the recollections of a powerful slave-holding family, which were memorialized in their personal letters, and those of the people enslaved on their plantation, which were given to an interviewer. It would have been a simple matter to recognize the unique concerns raised by each item of evidence and then research around the dispute to determine which version was more likely. Instead, the power that the letter writers had in life, and the relative powerlessness of those who gave the interviews, was simply reconstituted in the pages of history.
With that said, the writing that has been done in the past sixty years on slavery is, I believe, the crown jewel of American historiography. But as much good work as has been done, there is even more to do. It will be wonderful if “12 Years a Slave” not only introduces millions to Solomon Northup but propels them into libraries and bookstores to read the stories that have been told about the institution that haunts us to this day.

Clio’s Craft

The room was packed this morning for a session entitled “Clio’s Craft: History and Storytelling.”  The session served as a great follow-up to William Cronon’s presidential address last night which focused on the same theme.  It seems that the historians here at the AHA can’t get enough of panels and talks related to public history, writing for public audiences, digital history, and narrative.  I wonder how many people left last night’s session and went back to their hotel rooms and started writing.

This morning’s panel included a host of history rock stars and writers.  They were:

Martha Sandweiss
John Demos
Annette Gordon-Reed (fresh off her appearance as the 2012 Messiah College American Democracy Lecture, I might add)
Tony Horwitz (Of Confederates in the Attic fame)
Karl Jacoby
Marci Shore

I will let my tweets speak for themselves.  Additional material beyond the 140 characters are in bold. As usual, check out the Twitter feed (@johnfea1 or #aha2013) for the discussion that ensued.

Sandweiss: Horwitz is only panelist who makes a living by writing. “Without a day job you can get a lot of writing done.”

Demos: Handlin and Bailyn transformed the craft from storytelling to “full-blown intellection.”   Demos argues that those in favor of “full-blown intellection” were more interested in analysis and argument over story.

Demos: Never heard the word “argument” applied to historical study until he got tenure. He thought it was a strange word.  

Demos: Narrative allows opening for the “emotion”–in terms of readers, author, and characters.” “Head history to heart history” It strikes me that Demos was doing “emotional” history well before there was such a thing as the “history of emotions.

Demos: Narrative history leads to questions that often occupy philosophers and theologians.  

Demos: Narrative history leads to epistemological questions “What is my connection to the stuff I am working on–why do I care?”  

Demos: Narrative history closes distance between history and serious literature. Repositions history as a branch of literature.  

Demos: He is not saying narrative is superior over argument-based approaches to history. They are just different. It strikes me that those reading the twitter and blog feeds from this conference, which is saturated with stuff on reaching popular audiences, might get the impression that the AHA thinks scholarly or academic history is no longer important.  While I do think the feeds are one-sided (trending more toward the popular), I don’t think anyone is dissing academic or argument-based history here.  In fact, many presenters have been offering caveats like the one Demos offered above.

Gordon-Reed: Her first book on Jefferson and Hemings was the “anti-narrative.” All argument, no narrative. She is referring to Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy

Good to see Annette Gordon-Reed again. She was at Messiah College in November She delivered the 2012 American Democracy Lecture.  We covered it here.

Gordon-Reed: When she started writing history she NEVER thought about just writing for the academy, Reed talked about her love of reading fiction as a kid.  She wanted to write the next great American novel, but ended up in law school.

Gordon-Reed: White people not usually attracted to black people doing intelligent things. Unsure white readers would like her work.  

Horwitz: Says he is not an academic. He was beamed down from another planet to the strange world of professional history  

Horwitz: Can’t get his kids interested in history with an argument. Needs a story. Adults are the same way.  

Horwitz: Chronology is our natural ally as storytellers.  

Horwitz: The (reading) consumers are always right. Author needs to think about what the reader needs.  

Horwitz: Not seeing passion in papers at AHA. Feels like marriage counselor trying to get presenters to fall in love with subject.  This was a great line.  Horwitz said he was very disappointed with the lack of passion from presenters in the sessions he attended. 

Horwitz: Tired of hearing words like “privilege” (used as verb) and “problematize.” People don’t talk like this in the real world.  

I think Horwitz should write a “Confederates in the Attic”-type book describing the historical profession and the AHA.  

See my interview with Horwitz in my “So What CAN You Do With a History Major?” series.

Jacoby: Historians need to be brave about how we tell stories. They are politically progressive but methodologically conservative.  

Shore: Hegel’s prose is impenetrable, but still told a story that tried to make sense of the world. Intellectuals remain captivated  

Shore: Historians need to bridge the gap between immanence and transcendence  

Shore: Empathy is essential to the historian’s craft, but it has moral problems.  

Shore: Need to read Marci Shore’s book for the way it explores empathy. The Taste of Ashes: The Afterlife of Totalitarianism in Eastern Europe

Shore: Read 1950s Czech newspapers during her research so she could put herself in the world of the people she studies.  I found this to be very interesting and inspiring.  Shore read these newspapers to immerse herself in the world she was writing about.  She was not using them for specific research.

Shore: Problem of empathy is it comes with risk of moral relativism I have a lot to say about empathy and morality in my forthcoming Why Study History?”: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past.

Shore: Historian’s empathy is always born out of voyeurism that is thrilling, but not nice.

Horwitz: People will always remember the characters.  at the expense of argument.

Demos: We need empathy. Empathy is great. But when you fall in love with or hate characters it could be dangerous. Demos told a great story about writing The Unredeemed Captive.  He was reading to his wife a chapter on Rev. John Williams, one of the main characters of the book.  Demos had thought that he had treated him fairly until his wife said: “It sounds like you really have it out for this guy!”  Demos changed the chapter to be more empathetic to Williams. 

Demos: There is an element of self-examination in writing historical narrative. You learn something about yourself in the process.  

Shore: Sometimes historian’s voice must soften so characters in the narrative can be heard.  

Demos: Likes to occasionally use the interrogative in writing narrative. Ask a question and play with it.  

Demos: How do you teach historical empathy to students? Shore is going off on her research and not answering the question.  

I still want to hear panelists speak about how to teach historical empathy to students.  

Gordon-Reed calls Shore out. Empathy is important, but how do you teach it. Glad to see her get back on point.  

Horwitz: Great way to teach empathy is to go to the actual sites. Now we are getting somewhere.  

Horwitz: Students can learn empathy by writing about local history  

Jacoby: We must teach empathy. If we don’t we fail. Need for empathy must be made strongly in age when humanities is under attack.    Again, the civic role of teaching empathy is discussed in my forthcoming Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past.

Q&A: How do you get people to read your book? Sometimes it depends on the publisher or publicist, but sometimes its pure luck.  

Lendol Calder, “uncoverage” guru, asks about storytelling in teaching. Teaching literature is about argument at the expense of story   This was a point I raised earlier this year in response to a short post at AHA Today by Allen Mikaelian (who I met today).

The tension between storytelling and argument in teaching is HUGE. Panel is not answering Calder’s question very well   I wonder if teaching offers a sort of hybrid.  You want to teach historical thinking skills and critical thinking, but at the same time you want the course to have a narrative to which the documents, readings, and discussion contribute.

I am convinced that it is impossible for historians to ask short questions.  

Sandweiss: Are their historical arguments that cannot be explained by narrative? I think the answer is yes.